I am a mother to a wonderfully feisty 2 year old. A 2 year old who engages in behaviour that at times I am amazed and in awe of, but which at other times leaves me frustrated and exasperated.
If you are a parent of young children I am sure you have experienced these same feelings and you know exactly what behaviour I am talking about… the throwing of hard toys at your head, mashing and smearing banana everywhere, climbing on all the furniture and emptying packets of rice/flour/whatever they find in the kitchen all over the floor! Let’s also not forget dropping things in the toilet and hanging upside down!
If you are anything like I am, I am constantly asking Why!? Of my toddler, and the answer, is that there is actually a very good reason for these behaviours. Children have an intrinsic need for play, to explore their environment and help them to make sense of the world around them. These repeated patterns of behaviours are known as schemas and are an incredibly important part of your child’s development.
Schemas lay the foundations for later learning and the development of abstract thought (Being able to think about putting a ball in a cup when it is not physically right in front of you.) They can also vary from child to child; some schemas may show up quite obviously, or they can develop in clusters where a combination of schemas become apparent. Sometimes they come and go quite quickly and other times it can feel like your child is exploring one type of schema for a while. Interestingly studies have shown that children exploring similar schemas are often drawn to play together.
So why do these behaviours need to be repeated so often? When we learn something, a neural pathway is created in the brain; the more often we enact that same behaviour and repeat similar experiences the more this neural pathway becomes strengthened and eventually permanent.
OK, so they’re learning, that’s great, but it is also highly likely that they don’t enact them in what most adults would consider an appropriate manner! How can we understand what is going on with them, whilst also not having to check the toilet everytime we misplace something?
What are these schemas and how can we help aid our toddlers to explore them?
There are actually an endless amount of schemas, involving literally everything we as adults have learnt how to do, but we will just focus on the most prominent ones in toddlers. In Children under the age of three the schemas they are most focused upon are those that develop through “sensorimotor” events. This means absorbing information through their senses (sight, smell, taste, touch) and their own movements.
This involves carrying things from one place to another, either by hand or in bags/other items. Does your child like to put toys in a basket or bag and move them from one side of the room to the other and unload them? Or take everything out of the kitchen cupboards and move them somewhere you can’t find them!?
To aid the transportation urge you can ensure you have plenty of transporting toys around such as bags, baskets or pushchairs and smaller items that they can contain in them. Perhaps you can encourage them to help with carrying things, unpacking the shopping, putting things away, or perhaps help in the garden, carrying water and moving buckets/wheelbarrows (child size!) Watch people being transported on trains or buses, or play travelling games by lining up chairs or boxes for a bus/train and sing “wheels on the bus”.
This involves wrapping/ covering items or themselves. Does you child love to be under the table? In a box or wrapping dolls in blankets? Are they always opening and closing the bin? Or exploring whether they can hide an object under things or opening and closing cupboards.
To aid this schema shape sorters are helpful, play doctors or vets and use plenty of bandages. Have plenty of dressing up clothes/scarves and hats available. Russian nesting dolls and posting toys like a money box, or wrap up parcels – an enveloper loves presents! Games like “pass the parcel” and “peek a boo” are helpful.
Does your child enjoy putting things in cups? Climbing into boxes? Putting things down the toilet…!? Perhaps they like to draw or paint pictures then draw a border or circle around them. Maybe they like to create enclosures around their toys.
To help support this schema provide pots with things they can fill them with such as dry play with pasta/rice. Set up boxes or tents to “contain” themselves. This is also a good one to enact in the bath filling up bottles or cups. Provide opportunities for burying or digging objects out, maybe hiding some toys in sand/mud/flour.
Does your child love to view the world from a different perspective? Perhaps they sit on the sofa upside down, maybe they ask to be held upside down or sideways. Do they walk backwards or lie on top of the sofa?
This is an important schema for building confidence in many physical games and activities and is useful to anticipate how another person may move.
To satisfy this urge try walking along walls, rolling down hills, soft play… (if you can cope!) hanging upside down from monkey bars at the park or climbing trees.
Do they love to throw food? Do they like to watch it fall from their highchair and watch it hit the floor? Are they aiming blocks at your head or kicking anything on the floor? Are they fascinated watching birds fly through the air or trains passing?
This schema helps to develop throwing, catching, kicking and eventually activities such as driving, it is all about studying the movement of an object or their own body through the air
For this one you can encourage throwing balls at a target, maybe soft toys onto the bed inside, or kicking a ball into a goal outside, chasing games like “touch” or pushing toys off a table and seeing where it lands. My little one particularly enjoys taking a tennis ball to a park and rolling it down the slide. Water play, tunnels, climbing frames or even just providing leaves or feathers to watch them falling down are helpful for this schema.
Does your child spin around a lot? Are they fascinated by the washing machine or spinning the wheels on toy cars? Then they are likely exploring the rotation schema.
Things to support rotation can be connecting toy nuts and bolts or using spanners and screwdrivers, using keys in locks and padlocks. Drawing spirals in sand or finger paints and also mixing/whisking cake ingredients. Spinning tops, spinning the wheels on toy cars, watching clocks, water wheels and songs like “round and round the garden” with finger actions and “wind the bobbin up”.
Do they love to mix things together? Are they constantly pouring water into their dinner and playing with their food? Perhaps they like to smash banana and explore how various things change consistency when wet or dry?
This schema reminds me of little scientists or chefs. We can support this one with messy play, in the house: give them wet and dry ingredients like water, cornflour, pasta, and rice, and let them explore what happens when they mix it all together. Outside mud, leaves, water can be used in the same ways. Perhaps get them to help with cooking or mixing cake ingredients together.
I am sure that you recognise a fair few of these schemas, perhaps there are one or two that are sticking out for you that your child enacts fairly regularly. I think it’s important to note that these are all urges that your child experiences, quite often we can assume that they are doing these things to annoy us, or are being “naughty”, but it’s important to remember that children this young are not able to manipulate us and discipline for these types of behaviour is unlikely to be helpful because they still experience the innate drive to explore these schemas. Of course sometimes there are other reasons behind some behaviours; tiredness, illness, frustration, a need for connection. When it is these schemas at play however, and your child is acting in a way which you deem inappropriate (maybe throwing wooden toys at your head!) we can instead redirect to something that is more appropriate. It is fine to say, “we can’t throw things in here, shall we go outside where its safe to throw the ball?” and set boundaries for safety and convenience, whilst recognising and supporting the urge to learn and explore.
Encouraging and supporting these schemas in your children can help them to develop confidence in themselves and their abilities. It helps them to feel in control and if we provide tools to allow them to act on these urges they are also likely to spend longer enacting these activities
and we support them in their main business, the development of their brain and learning. Although it is still important to remember that under the age of 3 most children only spend between 2-5 minutes absorbed in an activity at any one time!
So, over to you: what schemas have you identified in your toddlers play? And how did you help to support them?